Carolyn Chen

Carolyn Chen is a composer whose work reconfigures the everyday to retune habits or our ears, through sound, text, light, image, and movement. For over a decade her studies of the guqin, the Chinese 7-string zither traditionally played for private meditation in nature, has informed her thinking on listening in social spaces. Chen holds degrees from Stanford University and UC San Diego. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

Hear her new work for solo guitar, Mom and dad are not at home performed by Neil Beckmann on our Solo Soundbox concert on November 18 at 21c Museum Hotel.

CSB: The opening of your bio says that you “have made music for supermarket, demolition district, and the dark.” Could you tell us more about that? 

CC: Half the work I do lives outside the concert hall or without instruments. In 2010, I curated an evening of covert and overt supermarket interventions at the Ralph’s across from UC San Diego that’s been remounted a few times – it included pieces like tuming to freezers, singing aisle contents while being pushed through in a shopping cart, or rearranging shelf contents in the manner of tuning the guqin, the Chinese zither historically played in nature. In the Zhuantang district of Hangzhou in 2012, I navigated through a partially demolished house by listening to the sound of a shard of glass scraped against the wall while moving through various rooms. I also did a number of pieces for small lights blinking in the dark (people circling one another in a model solar system) or for specific durations of light and dark (while performers acting as a corpse and watcher move through different positions).

CSB: What are you interested in exploring in your music?

CC: I’m interested in looking at stuff that I otherwise wouldn’t take the time to notice. Often this can be kind of mundane, and music is a way of investigating or meditating on something that I’d otherwise ignore – how couscous rolls, or how different objects fall, or my parents’ take on astronomy, or why I’m so bad at screaming. Another part of this is that each project is a chance to learn from the people I’m working with, and their practices and traditions – for example, I’d never written for solo classical guitar before this project with Neil, so it was fun to learn about the repertoire a little bit.

CSB: What is the background for your piece for this concert, Mom and dad are not at home?

CC: This piece happened through composer Jen Wang’s organizing commissions for immigrant advocacy – people donate to The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) or other immigrant advocacy organizations – and composers contribute pieces in turn. Neil and I had crossed paths at Nief-Norf Summer Festival in Knoxville, and then came into this through Jen’s Facebook post. Like many others, I’ve been continually appalled by the actions of our current administration, especially the separation of innocent children from their families, and I’m still looking for ways to stand up for a more just vision of our society. This is just a small piece, in honor of Neil’s contribution. I was listening to some lullabies online, and came across this one from the Puyuma, an indigenous people of Taiwan (where my parents are from). The melancholy of the song was striking. The lyrics ask the child to quickly close its eyes and go to sleep, because its parents are not at home – they are away catching fish. There’s not really an explanation for this, but it seemed like a natural departure point, with this oddly rhyming situation of absence and separation. The piece starts with chords and melodic gestures from the lullaby, repeated and gradually varied in small steps.

CSB: Who are other artists and composers whose work inspires and interests you? Are there specific works you could point our readers to? 

CC: I was really impressed by this when I ran across it in Berlin a couple years ago and I just found out Julian Rosenfeldt’s MANIFESTO came to LA – it’s a film installation where Cate Blanchett takes on 13 different personae, performing different historical artists’ manifestos, which resonate with each other in interesting ways. Also Cate Blanchett is amazing.
I just got married to a song called Pink Goodbye from Heather Lockie’s album Marshweed in the Garden – it’s just dizzyingly, tremendously beautiful. The album is full of gorgeous and surprising sounds, bundled in these very personal songs.
Over the summer I got to hear Southland Ensemble perform Laura Steenberge’s Byzantine Rites, a collection of musical pieces involving actions with household objects that was just exquisitely imaginiative and strange and lovely. I can’t find it online, but this is an older myth-related piece which is pretty amazing.

CSB: What other new projects are on your radar? 

CC: I’m finishing a series of pieces taken from quotes by lady adventurers for singing violinist Batya Macadam-Somer, editing video for an evening-length music-and-talking piece about how to fight for percussionist Jen Torrence, and I’m starting music for a film project called Golden with visual artists Annie Albaglia and Minoosh Zomorodinia, and poet Cintia Santana; a new piece with Aperture Duo; and a film collaboration with clarinet-and-sho player Michiko Ogawa and filmmaker Lyndsay Bloom.